In his recently published book, Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture, Radosh bravely ventures into Christian music festivals, Holy Land theme park, Christian comedy clubs, and even Christian pro-wrestling matches to dig out the hairy secrets buried in the kitschy recesses of pop evangelicalism. And he lives to tell about it. And tell about it he does, spilling the embarrassing facts of this $7 billion industry.
But why? In an interview with Christianity Today, Radosh, a humanistic Jew, explains: “Honestly, I did it because a lot of it is quite funny.” But Radosh, who is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and a contributing editor at The Week magazine, was not on a mission to mock or shock. He goes on to explain: “We think about pop culture as something ephemeral and superficial, and I wanted to try to understand how that could be combined with something like faith, which is eternal and deep.”
In working on this unusual project, Radosh had the earnest desire to look beyond the tacky bumper stickers, tasteless “Testamint” breath fresheners, and humdrum rock and roll in order to discover what is behind many of the strange phenomena that comprise this misunderstood segment of American society. In the end, what he offers is not a scathing review but a brief history and fair-minded analysis of the commercialization of Christianity. And more interestingly, he offers Christians the rare opportunity to be a fly on the wall.
Radosh was not writing with Christians as his audience, and so the book’s side-glanced relevance to evangelicalism is intensified with a raw, simple honesty that too often evades books in the Christian market. Rather than reading like another sermon about how Christians should and should not engage culture, the book simply shines a spotlight on the elephants that have been in the room so long that they now have dirty “Pray for America” made-in-China coffee mugs and dusty Left Behind books sitting on them. Christians could benefit from listening to more respectful and engaged observers like Radosh whose observations, not filtered through a churched colander, could jolt them out of insularity and provide the motivation to finally return these elephants to the zoo.
However, for a reader who is already familiar with the Christian pop subculture, much of the book can be skimmed. Radosh often hovers around the same subject for far too long, andperhaps because he is so new to the universeis fascinated with more details than a Christian reader might have the attention span for. Also, Radosh is so intrigued by the general value system of Christians that he devotes a lot of time familiarizing himself with itoften gratuitously filling pages with long quotations of those he has met. These sections are often repetitive, though certainly not dispensable, for a Christian reader.
But readers of all backgrounds will enjoy Radosh’s journal about his bizarre adventure in this parallel universe because it is informative and deeply insightful. While Radosh searches to uncover the most bizarre specimens that pop Christianity has to offer, he also takes the time to engage Christian theology and to ask the much-needed, obvious questions. For example, when conversing with Chuck Wallingtonowner of Christian SupplyWallington insists, “We’re selling stuff that impacts people’s lives.” To which Radosh responds, “Does it, though? There are some people who would say that when Christianity engages heavily in pop culture, that the pop-culture aspect cheapens the Christianity rather than ennobling the pop culture.”
Sometimes Radosh receives satisfactory answers, and sometimes he doesn’t. But astonishingly, after encountering Bibleman, the creationist guru Ken Ham, the demon novelist Frank Peretti, and many more characters who have found their niche in the Christian market, Radosh actually comes away from his adventures less cynical than when he began. “I learned not to trust my first impressions,” he says. “And I came out the other side with a very different perspective than I had going in.”
Recurrently, he befriends kind, sensible, intelligent evangelicals, and these people shift his religious/anthropological paradigm more than his discovery of Christians’ sex tips or their Halloween Hell House. And so it seems that he is able to escape cynicism because he quickly observes that the extremist hell-house Christians are not paddling in the mainstream.
“I could no longer think of [undistilled fundamentalism] as the purest, most authentic expressionthe secret idof evangelical pop culture. Instead it seemed more like the crazy aunt in the atticpart of the family that few were willing to totally disown but that most were a little ashamed of.”
As a side note, Radosh takes more care than most non-Christians do to get his terminology right. He does his homework and tries to make out the squiggly smudges that differentiate all the different Christian species. But overallbecause he claims the book is more about pop culture than religionwhen he says “Christians” and “evangelicals,” he is still referring to the most general definition. He also tries to be careful about how he uses the term “fundamentalist,” but when he uses the term, he seems to just be referring to the most extreme Christians. And because Radosh realized that Christian pop culture is “almost entirely an exclusively white affair,” he states that he removed African Americans from his samples.
Though most of the book is spent rummaging around in the periphery of American Christianity’s pop universe, Radosh concludes his adventure not by reprimanding the extremist, but by raving about the centrists who are as shocked as he is by his discoveries. In fact, rather than advocating for the annihilation of Christian pop culture, Radosh actually calls for a more complete intersection of the mainstream evangelical subculture with the larger American pop culture.
“As an outsider who has come to support the ascendancy of moderates within evangelicalism, I find myself sharing the goal of erasing that barrier,” he says. Radosh is so impressed by some Christian rock, Christian literature, and the Christian desire to participate as equals in American pop culture, that he wants to see this segment of the subculture adopted by the larger one: “As evangelical artists forgo the safety of the Christian bubble for the greater risks and rewards of competing in the mainstream, I hope the mainstream will make a similar effort to explore this ‘crossover’ Christian culture.” Radosh is like an amusement park caricature of John the Baptist: calling for a repentance of the sacrilegious junk at hand, while proclaiming a better pop culture to come.
By the end of the book, however, Christians should pause and realize that the perspective of a humanist can only be so helpful. Though Radosh might now understand this subculture better than some living in it, he is still operating from a completely different worldview and cannot understand that Christianity must, and always will be, a sort of parallel universe. But, perhaps now that Christian artists have been encouraged from the outside to enrich American pop culture, their parallel universe will become less stigmatized.
The greatest lesson in the book is not in what Radosh says with words but what he teaches by way of his tremendous example. If Christians treated American pop culture with the same respectful criticism and discerning openness that Radosh employed when examining the evangelical universeneither rejecting nor accepting everythingthese two cultures could have a productive encounter. Krystal Lewis and Kelly Clarkson could teach each other some new rhythms. Dan Rupple and David Letterman could slip each other some new jokes. Dan Brown and Jerry B. Jenkins could swap some writing tips. And rather than an apocalyptic collision, these two worlds could exist like neighbors, perhaps even offering to do the laundry every once in a while.
Kristen Scharold, a graduate of Wheaton College, works at Penguin Books.
Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture, by Daniel Radosh